Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon for Proper 8

St Thomas', Glen Carbon--Matthew 10:34-42

Of all the liturgical changes that we experienced in the Episcopal Church during the 1970s, leading up to the introduction of the Prayer Book that we’re using this morning, the one feature that I suspect has enjoyed the least actual use across the church is the so-called “contemporary” version of the Lord’s Prayer. Even in congregations where the rest of the service is in contemporary English, which is the case in the overwhelming majority in our diocese, the Lord’s Prayer is still usually said or sung using the traditional version. I won’t attempt to speculate on why this is, but I will observe that there are portions of the “new” Lord’s Prayer where the meaning is much clearer than in the familiar form, and in my private prayers, that’s the one I use. We are accustomed, for example, to say “lead us not into temptation,” and this has always troubled me because, biblically and theologically, it’s clear that God is never the source of temptation to sin, so it seems a little odd to be asking God not to do something that is contrary to God’s basic nature anyway. The contemporary form of this line reads, “save us from the time of trial,” and it’s really a more accurate rendition of the original Greek text. I think that if it said, “save is in the time of trial” it would be even more accurate, but that perhaps amounts to quibbling.

The point is that “time of trial” is rather more helpful than “temptation.” In all likelihood, what this petition refers to is end of history, the Last Judgment, the time when all will be revealed and brought to light, the time when wrongs will be put right and the secrets of every heart laid out in the open before the throne of God. The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether they speak literally or metaphorically, characterize this time as one of great stress and conflict and tribulation, with wars and natural disasters and plagues and that sort of thing. So, when Jesus gave us this prayer, he was encouraging us to ask God to see us through that difficult time, the time when we will be judged, the time when all our works will be put on “trial” and judged according to the standards of God’s righteousness and God’s justice and God’s love.

I don’t think it’s too long a leap, however, for us to understand the “time of trial” in a secondary way as well, one that refers to adversities that believers in and disciples of Jesus might be prone to in this world, before the cataclysmic crises of the end of the age. It’s probable that this is what Matthew had in mind when he wrote the gospel that bears his name, and which we are working our way through methodically during the summer and into the fall, and, more specifically, the experience of suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel. To the original readers of Matthew’s gospel, that was a very real possibility, and would certainly have constituted a “time of trial” from which they hoped to be delivered. Sadly, many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world also know persecution as a present reality, even today. None of us in this country suffer overt persecution for our faith, though, as our society continues the ongoing process of dechristianization, covert and subtle persecution is becoming quite ordinary. Yet, our understanding of the “time of trial” from which and in which we hope to be saved can even cover more than persecution. It can cover grief, disappointment, failure, shame, anxiety, fear, or even just everyday stress.

So the question arises, How are we going to hold up when the time of trial arrives? How should we deal with the prospect—the threat, actually—of being tested, of having what we’re really made of revealed in the crucible of adversity? In a passage from Matthew’s gospel that, if we pay close attention to it, we should find quite troubling—quite challenging and even distressing, really—Jesus gives us a strong hint as to how we might find ourselves prepared to be saved in and/or saved from the time of trial. He says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Well, right away, that gets our attention, because it flies in the face of our image of Jesus as Mr Nice Guy who doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings and wants everybody to just get along. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But it gets worse. He continues, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household.” If there’s anything we hold almost universally sacred in America, it’s the family, and in this passage, Jesus seems to be putting a bullet right between the eyes of the family. “A man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Well, from the context of other passages of scripture, I think it’s safe to say that this is not in fact what Jesus is doing. He’s using literary hyperbole, intentional exaggeration, to make a point. And the point is this: Being a Christian, being a disciple of Christ, means that we prefer Christ above all other commitments and ties, even the blood ties of family. When the crunch time comes, when the time of trial arrives, our brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents are those who are walking with us on the road of Christian faith and discipleship. If they happen also to be blood relatives, or spouses and in-laws, so much the better. But our primary connection is to Christ, and our primary loyalty is to Christ and the community of Christ-followers.

The alternative to preferring Christ is to follow our own basic human instincts. These are the instincts that, among other things, cause us to love the members of our family, and they are generally good things. The only problem is, they are also distorted by sin. It’s like a mixture of cancerous and healthy tissue—you can’t touch one without also touching the other. The fact is, we simply cannot trust our instincts, because we are all born in sin, and our instincts are corrupted. Our human instincts lead us to compartmentalize matters of faith and religious practice. They lead us to think of our life of discipleship as just one more in a long list of priorities that we need to somehow keep in balance—priorities like work, sports and leisure activities, civic and community service, political activity, exercise and health, and, or course, family.

Mind you, these can all be good things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them. They are just not the best thing; they are not the one thing needful. We need to think of them, not as other priorities alongside God and our commitment to the people of God, but, rather, as gifts that we have surrendered to God, and then received back from his hand, transformed and made holy and consecrated to him. If we are not willing to first surrender them, no strings attached, then these severe words of Jesus are for us: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Like I said, these are severe words, and they certainly seem counterintuitive to us, even going against nature. But they are, in fact, the very font of life and health and joy and peace—a fact that will become evident to us only when the time of trial arrives.

If we are not able to make this gift to God of all that we are and all that we have—our bodies, our affections, our family relationships, our hopes and aspirations—if we choose to follow instead our own sin-corrupted human instincts, we will find the time of trial—whether it’s a momentary affliction in this life or final judgment at the end of the age—we will find the time of trial quite “trying” indeed. If our faith and Christian discipleship are only compartments within our lives, and not the very center of our lives, when the stress of adversity comes, we are at risk of losing even what faith we have. And in the last time of trial at the end of time, we will find that we have rejected the gift of salvation that God has so freely offers us.

Jesus says,”Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward." Our modern ears tend to hear the phrase “little ones” and think automatically of children. But this isn’t what Jesus means here. The “little ones” are those who have put their faith in Christ and set out to follow him as disciples. Maybe it’s a very simple and not very educated faith. Maybe the discipleship is inept and inconsistent. We’re not talking about heroic Christians here, people who have their names in the liturgical calendar. We’re talking about ordinary folks, not “super disciples,” but “little ones.” Jesus is saying that not only will these little one not lose their reward, but even those who somehow help them along the way will also be rewarded. Honest discipleship, even if it’s imperfect, enables us to hang on to our saving faith when the time of trial arrives. Lord, save us from the time of trial. Amen.

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